The voices settled down after a while, and a disgusting silence— mostly due to shock— settled over the room. Jason stayed kneeled beside me, slouched against the wall, he murmured affirmations every so often, to no one in particular. A little dark-haired girl began to cry, her father sat blank-eyed against the wall with her in his lap, and didn’t do anything to stop her. No one motioned to quiet the girl, too wrapped up in their own thoughts to register what was going on out here. But I had resolved to stay as far away from my thoughts as possible; I was focusing on absolutely every aspect of my surroundings, trying to not think.
Inhale. Exhale. Everyone’s chests rose and fell at once, it was as if even our heartbeats and breathing patterns had synched up. We had become so connected in out fear that it was as if we were one organism. Living, breathing, thinking on the possibility of death.
How close had each one of us been to dying? Jason had gotten conformation over his radio, it had been an air strike, and we didn’t know anything after that. Not everyone had made it to the shelter, this much was clear, otherwise it would have been a lot more cramped. Had the others gotten out? Found another shelter? Or were they buried beneath what had been the Canada’s parliamentary library.
Jason suddenly took a deep breath in, he ran two hands over his face and soothed his sweaty black hair back. The air down here was hot, humid, and uncomfortable to breath: too many people in too small a space. Everyone was soaked in sweat, hair stuck to scalps and clothes became wet blankets. “Are you okay?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper. My eyes stayed locked straight ahead to a slight crack in the wall— in my mind it spread like a spider’s web, thin and elegant, before the room was covered in spider web cracks and the walls caved in. I tried to push the thoughts from my mind, tried to look away, but it haunted me nonetheless.
Jason nodded slightly, he rested his hands on his knees; he didn’t change his crouching position, as if he were ready to spring up at a moment’s notice. “I’ve been better. How do you feel?” He looked at me pointedly and heat rose to my face and ears. Jason had helped me avoid hyperventilating, and therefore probably had kept me from fainting. Still, I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. As if a girl having a panic attack was something he needed while trying to keep close to a hundred people alive during an airstrike. Everyone had watched me while I’d struggled to breathe, not in anger but in lazily masked confusion and annoyance. Still, every so often one of the tired eyes turned to me, as if to dare me to try that again. I cringed at the thought.
“Yeah, sorry about that. But I’m fine now, thank you. My name is Persephone, by the way,” I mumbled.
“Why are you apologizing?” Jason asked, looking at me questioningly. I couldn’t turn to face him, the heat kept rising in my face. It felt as if my cheeks were on fire. Damn, it was hot down there. “It’s my job to keep you and everyone else in here safe. So if you feel better, that’s mission accomplished for me.” Jason smiled tiredly, he wiped sweat from his forehand with the back of his hand and it left a black smudge.
“Right, sorry,” I said again.
Jason chuckled. “You look tired,” he noted. I shrugged, still not wanting to look at him. I watched instead the woman in the corner, clutching rosaries as a silent prayer passed her lips. The man next to her watched as her fingers moved along the beads, he looked exhausted enough to give up his beliefs if he thought that would help. Sometimes I wished I had someone to pray to, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t imagine any kind of deity taking an interest in me, so I didn’t bother. “Here.” I looked over now, watching as Jason sat fully against the wall beside me. “Lean on me, I’ll wake you when we can go up.”
Thunder. That’s what it sounded like.
Another large shudder passed through the infrastructure of the room, traveling along wooden beams and concrete slabs. Screams erupted from every corner of the room, and the sound stabbed through the former silence. The lights, fastened to the wall in long blue-white ropes, flickered. A scream bubbled from my lips, but it was barely audible compared to the noise in the room. My hands flew to the back of my head, my elbows jutting out, preparing to brace against the impact of the ceiling giving way. The spider web grew, reaching its arms far from the center crack.
A hand came to my shoulder. “Persephone, it’s okay.” Then he raised his voice to the room. “Everyone! Everyone, please, quiet down.”
“What was that?”
“The walls are cracking, I see it there! The lights were flickering too.”
“We’re going to die.”
A mother pulled her two children closer to her, ducking their heads into her chest. She stared wide-eyed into the crowd, a look of vulnerable fear crossing her face: a look she’d never let her children see.
Jason tried again. “Quiet!” he shouted, and this time the room complied. “Please, be calm. We don’t know what that was, but screaming isn’t going to solve anything. We have to stay calm until help comes, panicking now will only make everything worse. You may not want to believe me, but we’re perfectly safe down here. The walls are reinforced along with the ceiling, and we’re far enough down that some of the impact is absorbed before it hits us.” His words only half calmed the room, voices still rose in terror, but the screaming subsided. The woman prayed harder now, the man look envious of her, and the mother wouldn’t even let her children come up to breathe. “We’re safe. I promise. You’ll be fine, it’s my job to protect you, remember?” He forced a tight smile. Jason put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me in, so my head rested against the heavy padding in his jacket. As far as bomb shelter pillows went, it wasn’t bad. “You don’t have a concussion, so you should sleep.”
I couldn’t help my eyes from fluttering. Exhaustion and anxiety over came me: I would sleep, but not well. I could only anticipate the nightmare now, but I was too tired to fight it.
Jason’s voice slipped into my subconscious, and soon I was in that room again. A stew of people, a fog of stench. He was talking over his radio, bowing his head to where it was attached to his chest; every pair of eyes was on him, watching him for any sort of sign. “…Yes, sir… Okay… I understand… There were two-hundred-and-sixteen people in the library, Janet says she has eighty-three in the other shelter, and I have seventy-nine… They may have gotten out, I’m not sure… 1039, yes, sir… We have some injured down here, but check in with the other shelters…” he mumbled ‘yes’ and ‘okay’ a few more times before hanging up. Two-hundred-and-sixteen before compared to the one-sixty-two accounted for after, he thought the others got out, but he didn’t know. That meant that it was possible fifty-four people had died, and those were just the ones who had been in the library. What about the rest of the building? Those outside? Those in the city centre? How far had the impact spread? How many had died? How close had I been to dying?
I had awoken from a nightmare into another one. The taste of the last one still on my lips, but it slipped from my memory quickly. Heat, fire, death, screaming. A lot of panic and then the burning of smoke as it took over my body. “Persephone.” My head snapped up, nearly hitting Jason’s chin. “How do you feel?”
“I don’t think I’m going to have another panic attack, if that’s what you mean,” I replied. Then again, what did I knew? It wasn’t as if my body asked permission before putting me in these situations. “Thank you. What did they say?” I asked, gesturing to the radio.
“They’re checking in with the other shelters now, working on removing some of the debris. We’ll be rescued depending on necessities: we don’t have a lot of people, but we have more children than most others and a pregnant woman, we also have a few people in need of immediate aid.” When he said this he gestured to some people I couldn’t make out to the crowd, and then his hand died away before landing on me. Me. I was ‘in need’ of immediate aid. Or that’s what he probably thought.
I felt fine, thought, more embarrassed than anything. I hated being put in these situations, and I didn’t really like asking for help. I could handle myself, I had been for my whole life, and putting a spotlight on me would only make things worse. “I’m fine, really. EMS needs to look after the children, and her— she could go into premature labour from this.”
“Denying help when you need it doesn’t make you strong,” Jason said, not in a scolding tone but in a matter-of-fact way. I realized then that he was very young. For some reason, mostly passed on how calm he’d been, I’d figured he was older. He looked to be about my age, though, maybe even a year younger. “I’d like to get someone to look after you, if that’s alright with you.”
“Alright, everyone,” Jason said in a calm voice. He appeared to look around the room at the wide, hopeful yet scared eyes and chose his next words carefully. My heart pounded heavily in my ears as I waited for him to speak again. Everyone quieted as best they could, sensing the importance of his coming words. “Emergency response has cleared a path for us as best as they could. We will leave this room, and meet them on the bottom steps, they’ll have a ladder for us. If you have someone with an injury next to you, please help them along.” People stood up slowly, tentatively, and some helped others up. Jason turned to me and said in a lowered voice, “I have to go, you will be alright to get to the ladder, right? Just follow the crowd out, and lean on someone if you need.” I watched him as he got up, helping me up along the way, he made a b-line to the pregnant woman. She was struggling to get up, trying to push herself off the floor and wall. He bent down and let her throw her arm around his neck as they got up. They headed the crowd out.
I moved slowly, lethargically, feeling as the wave of bodies crushed me forward and back. I followed and stared straight ahead, watching as the artificial lights faded for dying evening light. I squinted into the air as I felt its first impact. The wall was intact halfway up the staircase, but after that it became a crumbling mass. I couldn’t bring myself to inspect the contests of the rubble, I feared seeing more than stone and wood. Voices shouted down, voices screamed in response, feet shuffled and people pushed, but I just did. My mind, in a rare event, shut off.
My hands scorched the steel and I hoisted myself up. People complained that I was moving too slow. How nice it would feel just to fall back, on the soft mass of people, looking at the sky. No effort, no pain in exertion. Could I really keep moving? Could this voices be real? These charred faces a few metres up?
Up and up and up and up. Three more, two more, one more. Hands pulled at me, guiding me along to get to the next person, I was handed along like a child.
Paramedics rushed around me immediately, their scuffed white shoes against the smoldering ruins of the Parliament building. My knees knocked together once more and gave way, the ground rushed to meet my palms and the bones in my knees cried against the ground. There had been a polished floor here, a rug, and more books than I could have ever read. Dripping colours into the receding sun. Flashing light, more screaming. My hands curled around the concrete pieces under me, my hand found a nail but I kept pushing. The hot air was cool now, but it was toxic, smoking. Like that night when my house went up in flames. A few salty tears rolled down my cheeks and onto my hands, they made my eyes burn.
When I looked up I noticed all the paramedics were wearing masks, and one of them handed a mask to me. She pulled me up quickly, and hurriedly pulled me to an ambulance. There was no, only victims and those here to aid, but I started at the scene with a violent sense of déjà vu. Mom. Where was Mom? I asked, but no sound came out, and the paramedic only buzzed around me.
The same paramedic gave me a clean, warm white blanket and another mask: an oxygen mask. She grabbed my hand and sprayed fire onto it, it stung and the skin turned red, she wrapped gauze around both my hands. A flashlight was shone into my eyes, my pulse, my breathing, my tongue, no bleeding from the ears— a good sign, she said. The paramedic listed off questions more like statements and I barely replied before she went onto the next. Allergies? Bees. Medical history? Nothing important. Medication? Not important. She looked at me with narrowed eyes. “I need your medical history and any medications you’re taking,” she stated again. I swallowed deeply and complied.
“GAD, I take escitalopram to treat it,” I reply finally. The words feel heavy and burdening coming from my mouth, but the paramedic doesn’t seem to notice.
The air was alive with fire and death, grey clouds of dust swirled around and the last rays shone through feebly. For the most part the smoke made it hard to see more than a few metres ahead.
“We’re going to take you to the nearest hospital, and treat any injuries I may have over looked. We’ll call your mother from there,” the paramedic said. She and another EMS worker lied me flat onto the stretcher, one of them stayed and the door shut behind the other. Wires stuck into me and came out carrying my blood, I was left staring at the plain white roof of the ambulance. Soon it began moving, the motion causing my stomach to churn.
My mind strayed back to all the people that wouldn’t be driven back to the hospital, but rather to the morgue.